by William Skink
Missoula is place that likes to plan for big, visionary things, like zero waste, no plastic bags and cars that run on positive vibes.
Ok, that last one isn’t real, but the other lofty efforts are very real. I mean, the talking about these goals is real. Real words are used by real people. All the good intentions are there, and they are fabulous intentions.
But reality is a son-of-a-bitch in its relentless persistence.
The omission of words about pesky realities one would rather ignore can be a powerful tool. Take this article about how we need to be good stewards of the Clark Fork. The Clark Fork Coalition is expanding their work to other rivers and focussing in Missoula on addressing the Smurfit Stone site. Good things, good intentions.
The omission is what’s happening at the camps by the Reserve Street bridge. There is both an omission of words in the article and an absence of action during the recent Clark Fork clean-up, which happened on April 20th, but DID NOT happen at the camps.
With water levels rising, the trash the water dislodges will flow downstream. So will the fecal matter. Not talking about it and not doing anything to address it won’t magically make what’s happening there disappear.
I’ll give some reluctant kudos to Missoula’s perpetual candidate for local office for at least going back down to the camps and capturing some images of what’s being left behind by the inhabitants. I also appreciate seeing this comment from the Mayor’s Communication director, who appeared last month on KGVO:
One of the topics brought up by the many callers to the show on Friday was the homeless camp that exists in the area around and under the Reserve Street Bridge and the dangers of disease and poor sanitation that exist in the camp.
One caller asked specifically if the city is turning a blind eye to the area.
Merriam responded first by stating that the area is under several distinct jurisdictions including Missoula County, the State of Montana and even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We do not turn a blind eye to it,” said Merriam. “However, it is extremely labor intensive. At least once a year, sometimes twice, the city participates with a number of our city employees with the county and other jurisdictions and I believe, even the Forest Service in cleaning out that camp. We give people notice that we’re coming and that we’ll be dismantling structures and hauling away trash and they need to depart from here with your belongings.”
Merriam said once the job is done the homeless simply return.
Ginny Merriam is describing what the clean up efforts USED to be like when I was involved doing outreach for the Poverello Center. We did give notice weeks in advance that the clean-up was coming, and we did dismantle structures. From what I have heard, having talked to people still directly involved, dismantling structures is no longer happening.
I haven’t been involved in organizing the clean-up efforts for a few years now, but it never involved more than a handful of city staff. It was mostly volunteers involved, thanks in large part to the Clark Fork Coalition. When the Montana Department of Transportation begrudgingly funded the first effort, which was contracted out, it cost over $15,000 dollars and took over a week to accomplish.
Merriam is correct about the different jurisdictions being an issue. That is the main factor driving the inaction. A lack of interest from the Sheriff’s Department is another, from what I hear.
At some point something will happen to force more to be done to address these camps. At the very least, the visibility of the camps will fuel skepticism that any headway is being made to address homeless.